Chinese kunqu opera star Zhang Jun talks about his life’s passion

Zhang is only 42, but he is known as the prince of kunqu, a 600-year-old Chinese operatic style, which he is taking to the international stage

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 6:02pm

If we were to put a face to traditional Chinese opera, it would not be that of Zhang Jun.

Sporting clothes, hairstyle and looks fit for a pop star, it is hard to associate the 42-year-old kunqu performer with the 600-year-old operatic genre. But with his unconventional approach – and well-honed skills and charisma – Zhang is an earnest crusader to keep the ancient art alive.

The recipient of the Unesco Artist for Peace award (2011) was recently in town to perform in Zuni Icosahedron’s experimental piece Sigmund Freud in Search of Chinese Matter & Mind.

‘Chinese Shakespeare’ Tang Xianzu in focus at Hong Kong Chinese opera festival

For that show, which explored how “love and passion” are perceived, interpreted and understood in Eastern and Western literature and theatre. Zhang uses a well-known kunqu classic, The Four Dreams of Linchuan by Tang Xianzu to explore the relationship between himself and the theatre.

Whether it’s instilling new elements or bringing back lost traditions, Zhang has a way of surprising audiences with his radical ideas. The Zhang Jun Kunqu Art Centre, which he founded seven years ago, has put on only four original productions so far. But they are all groundbreaking performances that challenge the boundaries of how kunqu can be presented.

Because of the intricate and rigid structure of kunqu, opera troupes mostly perform new versions of old plays as opposed to staging new works. Zhang and his crew, on the other hand, presented a whole new kunqu drama two years ago – Blossoms on a Spring Moonlit Night. It opened to packed houses in Shanghai and will be presented by Zhang and a star-studded cast at the 45th Hong Kong Arts Festival in February.

It tells the tale of a pair of star-crossed lovers who meet only thrice in their lifetime. The script, written by Luo Zhou who was born in the 1980s, and is based on a 1,300-year-old poem by Zhang Ruoxu.

Chinese opera stars celebrate its beauty and diversity

According to Zhang, the poem is widely regarded as one of the best pieces of literature from the Tang Dynasty. Interestingly, there is little historical record about the poet himself.

“So the writer made up a backstory, which I find astonishing. We all worked together to perfect the storytelling, in order to portray its essence – love and time,” says Zhang.

While his productions might be new, Zhang strives to preserve the traditional art form and make it relevant to modern society. While this approach is not without its critics, Zhang believes that he is no different from the art form’s first pioneer, Wei Liangfu from the Ming Dynasty, who refined kunqu by adding new tunes, transforming it from a regional act to a national one.

Zhang is taking it from national to international.

This week, Zhang is presenting an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, first in London then New York. He will be playing all five key roles and telling the classic tale through a kunqu monologue.

His critics might see his unconventional approach as a gimmick but Zhang is classically trained and well-recognised for his skills as a traditional kunqu performer. In addition to receiving the prestigious Plum Blossom Award, he also earned himself the nickname ‘prince of kunqu’.

Zhang’s exceptional ability comes not just from innate talent but a solid foundation built from years of tough, physical training.

Despite his palpable passion for the art form, Zhang jokingly describes his entry to the industry as “mistakenly boarding a pirate ship”, a Chinese metaphor that means being misled into a trap.

“Entering opera school rewrote my life,” says Zhang, who was 12 when the Shanghai Traditional Opera School, which recruits once every decade, came to his district in rural Shanghai. His mother enrolled him, then a bashful boy, hoping the competitive audition process would toughen him up. To their surprise and delight, Zhang was ultimately the only boy selected from 2,000 candidates.

Kunqu: The mother of all Chinese drama

For Zhang, the hardship had only just begun. Kunqu is a highly sophisticated and physically challenging art form that has a great focus on aesthetics – so every move of a finger and flick of an eyelid is performed with precision. The teachers held students to the strictest standards and they had one method to achieve that – corporal punishment.

“Parents were especially pleased when their children were beaten as it meant the teachers were doing their jobs,” says Zhang, who recalled having to stand on one leg and hold a position for 10 minutes. “The teacher would stand behind you holding a baton and administer a heavy blow at the slightest waver.”

“All the parts [of my body] that can be broken have been broken before,” recalls Zhang, who has suffered from multiple bone fractures. “There was a certain scene where I had to do a somersault over a 1.8 metre wall but I was not in good condition that day and I crashed onto it instead.”

Out of the 60 students enrolled, only a third made it through the grinding training to graduation in 1994. After eight years the painful trial was finally over, or so Zhang thought.

He rose steadily through the ranks of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe over the following decade, during which there was a defining moment in his career – a collaboration with Japanese kabuki artist Ichikawa in 2002.

Ichikawa explained to Zhang that a large part of Japanese culture stems from China.

“I was stunned by his words,” says Zhang. “For me then, [performing kunqu] was my job. I only had to do it well. But I realised then I was representing kunqu and traditional Chinese culture.

“Shanghai is developing rapidly and is already an international city. But so what? What truly gains you the respect of other people is not infrastructure, but the power of your culture.”

While the collaboration itself was not culturally significant, Zhang would look back and realise how that moment of revelation completely changed his perspective and attitude.

“If you view kunqu as a job, you would burn out very soon because in reality, what this industry has to offer is very limited. However, since then kunqu is no longer just an occupation to me, it is my mission.”

It is this mindset that drove Zhang to quit his promising job and found his own company in 2009. He and peers have been actively visiting universities and schools, speaking to younger generations about the art of kunqu since 1998.

Zhang has a loyal fan base that consists mainly of younger people and is now witnessing the remarkable comeback of kunqu.

“It’s this era that gave kunqu an opportunity and I’m simply lucky to have been born at the right time,” says Zhang.

Blossoms on a Spring Moonlit Night, Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Feb 28 to Mar 1

HK$150 – HK$380, Inquiries:2824 2430.